Not One More

We drove past Sandy Hook and Newtown on our way home from Virginia this Memorial Day and next to the exit sign was a hand-lettered placard: “Free coffee and doughnuts.” This community had twenty first-graders and six teachers and administrators massacred by a man with an assault weapon. And what were they doing on this Memorial Day? Trying to keep drivers alert…and alive.

I hear people defend their right to own assault weapons because they say they need to be safe from “bad guys with guns.” I hear people say they need to protect their own. I never hear them say they want to protect their neighbors. I never hear them say they want to help. I hear them only expound on themselves and their rights.

But Sandy Hook, a town whose children did die from a bad guy with guns—they care about keeping you, anonymous you, alive.

Who has the bigger heart? Who has the richer soul? Who holds the future of our species? Do you want higher walls, bigger guns, more rampant paranoia? Or do you want the compassion of a town trying to keep holiday drivers alive, even as they continue to mourn the senseless slaughter of their children?

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2014/05/christopher-michael-martinezs-father-gets-it-right.html

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Complete Days

I am sitting on the couch in the really nice and big room that Richie booked for us in a Maryland hotel, three-quarters of the way to Virginia, where we will be for a bike thing. Well, it’s a bike thing for Richie. I take my paints and Maybelle (my sometimes traumatized GPS) and Buddy (the adventure Maltese) and head out to the Blue Ridge Mountains, in search of vistas. And there are vistas a-plenty.

When I find one that gives me that zing, I set up to paint. Despite people coming over to look at what I am doing, which makes me very self-conscious, I persevere until I get a painting done that I like the looks of.

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For those of you who paint outdoors, or en plein air as they say, you know that when you look at that picture later, you will smell the air, feel the sun or shadow on your skin again and hear the bird calls—it is that absorbed into you. It becomes more than a memory; it becomes a tangible part of your life.

After completing a satisfying painting, I load everyone back into the car, we head back to the cottage where we are staying and wait for the bicyclists to get back. They are riding a ridiculous amount of miles on back-woods dirt roads, and they feel very manly for doing it. I am satisfied with my day, they are satisfied with their day and when we meet again at the end of the day, we are complete.

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Around the Block

One of the good things about getting older, I said to my friend the other day, is that you’ve been around the block so many times you become complacent about things that used to freak you out. I was privy to this insight just this week, when I drove into Boston to attend a friend’s commencement. I don’t much like driving, especially in traffic and besides, Boston is two hours away.

I had my trusty GPS—let’s call her “Maybelle”—an emergency snack of cashews and one Cadbury Crème Egg, a leftover gift from two days before. Richie was on his way to New Jersey, so he wouldn’t be able to rescue me if anything happened. (But I tried not to think about that.) The drive in was fine except that I was late for the commencement because there was NOWHERE to park and when I finally got to the (outdoor) venue, it was raining with a stiff wind coming in from the harbor. No matter. The commencement was invigorating and teary, just like it was last year, when I graduated. This is no staid commencement, by the way. When the graduates’ names are announced, a huge cheer goes up from family and friends. And so it went for three hours. Then it was time to go home. It was 5:00 pm. On a Friday. In downtown Boston.

I set Maybelle for “Home” and inched along traffic-clogged streets. She instructed me to turn onto 93 North which immediately descended into a tunnel. This was the time when I knew I was mellowing out. Because it used to be that being in a tunnel would have me claustrophobically gasping for air and here I was—not only in a tunnel, but boxed in by unmoving traffic.

I calmly munched my cashews and then decided that since we weren’t moving at all, it would be a good time to attempt to unwrap the Cadbury crème egg. As I was savoring the crème egg, I thought maybe if we were stuck in here for much longer, I could start selling cashews to my fellow traffic-jammers. Do you see? Not a hint of panic from me. We started moving very slowly and that’s when Maybelle, not me, started freaking out. Instead of telling me to take Exit 28, which she had done before the tunnel, she now told me to “turn left onto State Street.”

“There is no State Street, honey,” I told her, licking the last of the crème off my fingers, “we’re in a tunnel.”

But Maybelle would have none of it. “Take a left onto State Street!” she insisted. Then two seconds later, “Take a left onto State Street!” She was starting to get to me. “We’re in a tunnel, lady, I can’t take a left!” I yelled at her.

Great, I thought, as I maneuvered the car across three lanes of underground rush hour traffic to get off at exit 28—Maybelle’s pre-panic instruction. Because who knew now, if Maybelle wasn’t having a nervous breakdown? Maybe, I thought, I’ll be driving around Boston for the rest of the night, trying to find my way home.

But even then, lost in Boston rush hour traffic with a traumatized GPS, I was calm. It was an odd feeling. I just knew somehow I would get myself out and home.

So that’s what you get when you get older—peace of mind.

And I’ll take it.

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Authenticity

I attended all three days of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) last weekend. Exhausting. I’m not used to being around hundreds of people for thirteen hours a day. I attended a few stellar workshops—Nancy Werlin’s cutting and revising presentation stands out—and a few mediocre ones. There were quite a lot of presentations on the “getting-your-book-published” side of things and a friend of mine noted that this conference is always an uneasy mixture of craft and marketing. Because of course, books need readers and from the publisher point of view the more the better.

But what makes a book sell? No one really knows, oddly enough, hence the headlong rush to copy the style of the latest best seller. But I think there is a thread that that runs through all extraordinary books and that thread is authenticity. The author has something to say and says it: truthfully, honestly, and often, painfully.

 dorothea langeAuthenticity sells because authenticity connects and the one thing that connects us all is our human condition. If a story is written authentically, readers connect to it. They sense its inherent honesty and by transmission, its inherent value to their lives.

America’s timeless stories—The Grapes of Wrath and To Kill a Mockingbird come to mind—burn with the author’s passion. John Steinbeck and Harper Lee wrote from their hearts, not from the publishing pulse. They wrote because they had something to say and they said it. Authenticity, in both these books, rings like lead crystal tapped.

When we write authentically, we write from the very base of human longing and it is that longing which not only connects us all, but to which we long to be connected.

Dorothea Lange - Sharecropper's cabin and sharecropper's wife, ten miles south of Jackson, Mississippi, 1937

photos by Dorothea Lange

SCBWI

I am off to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference this morning and didn’t get a chance to write anything (oh, the irony!) so I’ll just offer you two pretty pictures of spring. See you next week!IMG_1668

I love the Vermeer-esque lighting on these tulips.

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Is there anything happier than a golden bird in a red-budded tree?